What you want to do is not the same as what you need to do

Most people would agree that one of the principle benefits of GTD is the ability to see anything and everything on your plate at a given time.  Once you have mastered the fundamentals of clearing your brain and deciding on next actions, your lists should be fairly comprehensive and all encompassing.  This fact, in and of itself, gives GTD a lot of its cathartic power, in that you can see all your open loops in one place and have a good context to choose what to work on.

But what if I don’t want to do it?

Pop quiz: what is the next step after you have 1) Collected, 2)Processed, 3)Organized, and 4)Reviewed? It’s Do of course!

So naturally, you look at all your next actions, and automatically one jumps out at you and says “Pick me!  I’m fun and easy”.  Emotionally, you want to listen to that little voice, so you start working.  Before you know it, the task is done, and you go back to your list.  Immediately, another item jumps off the page, practically screaming “I’m next!  Me!”  And so on.

At the end of the day, you probably have checked off a good number of things off your lists.  You probably feel good and think to yourself, “Look at all I’ve accomplished today!  This GTD stuff isn’t so hard.”

Here’s the problem: you know all those tasks you’ve been doing all day?  While some of them probably legitimately needed to be done, most probably fell into what Steven Covey calls the “Un-important / Not-Urgent” category.  In other words, while they may have given you an emotional “good feeling” and felt good while being done, they probably did not do much to advance your larger goals and move critical projects along.

But the server is calling my name…

I’ll use myself as a prime example.  This morning, after I made sure my task lists were all up to date, I had a choice between the following:

  1. Restore backup of my linux home media server, from before I managed to completely corrupt it with various packages I didn’t really need (the topic of another post perhaps).
  2. Finish packing for the holiday trip my wife and I are taking, scheduled to leave this evening.
  3. Empty the cat litter.
  4. Bring in new cat litter from the trunk of the car.

So looking at this list, and with the knowledge that I am a consummate geek, which one do you think appealed the most to me?  Hint: if you said “Empty the cat litter”, you obviously don’t understand the phrase “consummate geek”, and need to consult Wikipedia or another credible source.

Naturally, it’s number one, “Restore the backup…”.  I ended up spending around three hours struggling with correcting miscellaneous configuration and system settings.  In the end, while I was successful, I felt that I had not accomplished much of anything, and felt stressed and anxious about completing the remainder of my items for the day.  In retrospect, if I’d just taken care of items 2, 3, and 4 first, then moved on to my geekery, I probably would feel a lot better, and would have still had time to fix up my system before our departure.

So the next time you find yourself caving in to that little voice telling you “Pick this one, it’ll be fun!”, stop and think for a moment.  Is this really what I need to be doing right now?  What will happen if I don’t do “X”?  Is this one of those “Non Urgent / Not-Important” tasks?  Trust me, you’ll be thanking yourself later.  And that fun-to-do task the little voice was nagging you about?  It will be even more fun later.

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